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Million more disabled people in work than five years ago

The UK government has exceeded targets to see a million more disabled people in work five years ahead of schedule, yet campaigners warn of the underlying disability employment gap. 

On 17 May, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that there are now 1.3 million more disabled people in work than there were five years ago. 

Initially, the government had hoped to reach a million more disabled people in employment by 2027. 

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Though this rapid progress has been celebrated by the Business Disability Forum (BDF), CEO Diane Lightfoot cautioned that there is a much bigger picture at stake. 

Speaking to HR magazine, Lightfoot said: "Before the target of one million more disabled people in work was set, the government’s stated ambition was to halve the disability employment gap. We would encourage a return to this more ambitious target.” 

The disability employment gap, Lightfoot explained, is the difference between the number of disabled and non-disabled people of working age who are in work. 

Currently, in the UK 52.7% of disabled people of working age are in employment, compared to 81.1% of their non-disabled peers. 

This figure also masks lower levels of employment for some disabilities. 

“It’s important to remember though that the term disability as defined by the Equality Act is incredibly broad and people with different conditions experience different barriers to employment,” added Lightfoot. 

“The figures for some groups are much lower. Fewer than 6% of working age adults with learning disabilities are in employment, for example.”  

Employers have an important role to play in ensuring work is inclusive of a variety of disabilities.  

Speaking to HR magazine, Danny Harmer, chief people officer at insurance giant Aviva, added: “These are encouraging figures, but there is still a way to go to make workplaces fully inclusive and supportive of people with physical and mental disabilities.” 

BDF member Aviva has a disability action plan to make sure it attracts disabled candidates and they can progress throughout the organisation. 

Harmer said: “Actions include reverse mentoring of leaders by disabled colleagues, inclusive recruitment training for hiring managers and interviewing every disabled applicant who meets the minimum criteria for a job. 

“Crucially we are also supporting our people to disclose their disability so that we have the data to analyse our progress in terms of attraction, promotion, retention and reward.” 

All its work is done in collaboration with AvivaAbility, the company’s employee resource group on disability.  

While inclusive workplace design is important, Lightfoot said it was not the only challenge. 

She said: "Closing the disability employment gap is not – and cannot be – just down to employers, though clearly, they have a crucial role to play." 

She urged government to set new, ambitious targets to help improve the lives of disabled people at work.

This would include, Lightfoot added, reporting on multiple employment gaps, and a rethink of the data methodology behind the figures to ensure the goals are fit for everyone.  

Similarly, Jessica Ross, founder and CEO at marketing agency Smashtag Social, told HR magazine: "The government needs to focus less on hitting goals or KPIs and more on tangible action.  

“All they've done is celebrated and given themselves a pat on the back. Maybe they should throw another party to say well done for all their hard work.” 

In 2021 the government set out its National Disability Strategy. This too was criticised by BDF for not having enough reach.